Ask Alice about Catholicism
Why do priests wear vestments?

I admit, being let loose in a sacristy the first time can be like wandering through a costume department in Hollywood. Vestments can be ornate, fabulous, regal—not to mention incredibly heavy, depending on the period they were designed. But what’s most important to recognize is that when first adopted they were a costlier form of the same basic garb worn by the general population.

Ancient Hebrews wore a tunic, gathered with a sash, and a turban. Wool was the primary fabric, but priestly garments were mostly woven of linen and decorated with gold thread and yarns of violet, purple, and scarlet. In addition, high priests wore an overlying robe, squarish, with a hole in the middle to drape over the head, trimmed at the hem in bells and yarn pomegranates. On his head he wore a miter (pointed hat).

When the first Jewish Christians gathered for worship, they assembled in homes and wore no distinguishing clothing. But after the legalization of Christianity in the late 3rd century, formal public worship raised the visibility of the presider and so, too, his vesture. Still, the clothing worn by the presider resembled secular apparel.

First came the alb, a white tunic worn as an undergarment in all social classes. A ropelike cincture held the alb in place around the hips. Next was the chasuble, a more colorful poncho-like covering. Over that was the scarf known as the stole, which may have been a symbol of authoritative office. Then came the dalmatic, a more formal alb worn in the imperial court and reserved for the use of bishops and the deacons who served with them. To the bishop was also reserved the wearing of the miter.

After the 7th century secular fashions advanced, strangely enough, as a result of barbarian invasions which brought down the Empire in the West. But church vesture remained the same, now oddly out of step with what everyone else was wearing. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s inaugurated a return to simplicity in vestments, recommending that their beauty derive from “material and design” rather than “lavish ornamentation” (say good-bye to bells and pomegranates!). The continued use of vestments links our celebrations with those of previous generations and enhances the dignity of our assembly—as dressing in “our Sunday best” always has.

• Exodus 28, 29, and 39; Leviticus 8; Ezekiel 44:15-19

Online resource
General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 335-347

The Symbols of the Church by Maurice Dilasser (Liturgical Press, 1999)
The Mass and Vestments of the Catholic Church, Liturgical, Doctrinal, Historical, and Archaeological by John Walsh (General Books LLC, 2010; pay-to-download site)

Ask Alice a question.
Alice L. Camille
Alice Camille is a gem among contemporary writers on scripture and Catholic teaching. She has received numerous awards for her books, columns, and exegetical reflections. She received her Master of Divinity degree from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, where she also served as adjunct faculty in ministry formation, preaching and proclamation. Alice is an author, religious educator, and parish retreat leader. Learn more at

Before sending Alice a question, please check below to see if she has already responded to it. Also, please send only questions of general interest. Not all questions can be used. Thank you!
Got a question for Alice?

   Ask her now!

More questions...and responses

Where did Lent come from?

What’s so important about the Council of Trent?

What are the “Precepts of the Church”?

Do Catholics take the biblical creation story literally?

Why can’t a woman be ordained?

Why does the liturgy change?

Is Purgatory still “on the books”?

Why is it important to participate regularly in the Mass?

Why pray the rosary?

Why can people go to Mass on Saturday evening instead of Sunday?

Did King David compose the psalms?

Who were Jesus' “brothers and sisters”?

Is there really a Catholic Index of Forbidden Books?

What are the corporal and spiritual works of mercy?

Is a long or short discernment process better for someone interested in becoming a priest, nun, or brother?

What’s the difference between celibacy and chastity?

Is it “Catholic” to be vegetarian? Do Catholics care about animal suffering?

What does the Bible say about Judgment Day?

Why do Christians believe Jesus is God incarnate?

What’s that picture of Jesus with rays flowing from him?

What is the Triduum?

Who chose the "Seven Deadly Sins"?

"What should I believe about hell?"

Is the Mass a “holy sacrifice” or a “celebration”—or both?

Pulpit, lectern, ambo: What’s the difference?

What was the Reformation?

What is “discernment of spirits”?

Is environmentalism “Catholic” or a political football?

Why do Catholics believe in the Immaculate Conception?

Why are there parishes?

Do Catholics believe in ghosts?

Who was Saint Augustine?

What is "sanctuary"?

What is the Liturgy of the Hours?

How does God “answer” prayers?

What does “salvation history” mean?

Why do Catholics believe in the Assumption of Mary?

Do miracles still happen?

What do deacons do?

How is the Mass “prayer”?

What is Catholic decision-making?

Who wrote the gospels?

What is “original sin”?

How does the Catholic Church view other religions?

The "Five C's" of Confession

What's the difference between chapels, churches, cathedrals, and basilicas?

Where do the Stations of the Cross come from?

What's the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament?

When and where is it appropriate to bow inside Catholic churches?

Can I come back to the church?

Why does the priest talk after the readings at Mass?

What's the difference between catechesis and evangelization?

Didn't Saint Paul write all the letters attributed to him?

Are we supposed to believe in angels and demons in the 21st century?

Who are the saints and why do we pray to them?

Why pray for the dead?

Who are the "Doctors of the Church"?

How were the books of the Bible chosen?

What's the difference between saying "set" prayers and prayers in my own words?

What do Catholics have to believe?

Who were the prophets? Does God still call people to prophecy?

What is the lectionary?

Why do Catholics bless themselves, genuflect, and so on?

Did Jesus establish a church? How did we get from following “the Way” of Jesus to this big institution?

What do we mean by the church’s “magisterium”?

Is there salvation outside the Catholic Church?

What do people in religious life do for fun?

Why is celibacy important to religious life?

Vocation: For all of life, or only "religious life"?

What is contemplation?

Is my vocation from God or just my imagination?

What does the Bible say about discipleship?

How do I know whether be an order priest or a diocesan priest?

What do Catholics believe about scripture and tradition?

"Sin" is such a negative word. Can't we just talk about “failure”?

Should I read the Bible?

How can I be happy?

How can I live a holy life?